Home » Uncategorized » The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 3

The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 3

Part 3 of discussion on the miracles of St Olaf of Norway. 


The Birth of the Saint and Death of the Man

Olaf the Stout’s forces met an army of bonders loyal to Knutr the Great at the farm of Stikklestað on July 29, 1030.  As stated earlier Olaf was awoken to arrive at the battle field and it was soon apparent that Olaf had significantly less forces than the bonders.  The fighting soon became hand to hand and Olaf became directly involved.  The first wound that Olaf received was an axe wielded by Thorstein Knaresmed to the left leg above the knee.  The second wound received was Thore Hund’s spear in the belly.  The death wound to Olaf was a sword to the left side of neck wielded by one of two Kalfs (Sturluson 402-3).

Please note that all of the wounds were received on the left side of Olaf’s body, the sinistre side.  This may be a manipulation of the event’s facts by clerics to reflect the negative connotations of the left side.  This, in turn, is a reflection of a primate trend of right-handedness that there is even neurological evidence for.  However, similar circumstances would have also occurred if all of Olaf’s attackers were right handed.  The wounds are also presented in order of severity.  The style of this episode reflects a theme of overwhelming of God’s servant, as befitting the meaningful martyrdom and birth of a saint.  Later Snorri would say that Olaf had died at age thirty-five, remarkably close to the age that Jesus was upon his death.  The extreme detail given concerning the wounds reflects the Norse saga-style, and its legal usage and meanings.  This pertains to an older Germanic legal tradition concerning woundings, killings, and compensation.

With the death of Olaf the Man St. Olaf is born, and with him even stronger, presented, signs of sanctity.

Miracles of Saint Olaf

The first miracle of St. Olaf following his birth occurred as Thore Hund, the spear wielder in St. Olaf’s birth, got some of Olaf’s blood into his wounded hand from his spear.  The wounded hand was claimed to have been healed by the holy saint’s blood.  This is, of course, a direct correlation with the holy blood of Jesus, said to be able to heal the world of its wounds.  The most obvious explanation is that the wound was only Olaf’s blood that had spilt onto Thore’s hand.  This event was probably reinterpreted by the Church in order to better support Olaf’s sanctity.

Following the end of the battle, which would have lasted until sundown at around 11:30, the owner of the Stikklestad farm itself, a man loyal to Olaf collected the saint’s body from where it lay. This movement of a saint is known as a translation.  Thorgils Halmsson and Grim Thorgilsson collected the body and took it to an empty outhouse.  Here they cleaned the body with water and wrapped it in linen.  The father/son team then hid the body under a pile of firewood and returned to their farm for the night.  The treatment of the body exhibits the influence of medieval Christian burial practices.  In both of the first miracles source authors are careful to mention that Olaf’s body is still lively looking, with reddened cheeks.  Please keep in mind that these sources are all written by later clerical writers and so are probably exhibiting that influence.

Saint Olaf’s third miracle, that of the Blind man, is considered to be a major sign of his sanctity.  It occurs after Thorgils and his son Grim have prepared the body and hidden it under a wood pile, but before the further translation back to Niðaros.  The blind man, a beggar, had wandered into the abandoned house for shelter for the night. 

Hann kendi fyrir hondunum, at tjorn var á gólfinu; þá tók hann upp hendinni vátri ok rétti upp hottin, ok kómu fingrnir upp við                 augun; en þegar brá kláða á hvarmana svá miklum, at hann strauk með fingrunum vátum augun sjálf; síðan hopaði hann út ór             húsinu ok sagði, at þar mátti ekki liggja inni, þvíat þar var alt vátt.  Ok er hann kom út ór húsinu, þá sá hann þegar fyrst skil                 handa sinna ok alt þat, er nær honum var, þat er hann máttiá sjá fyrir náttmyrkri (Sturluson 408).  [He knew what was before his           hands, that damp[?] was the floor; then his hands discovered water and reached up a little bit, and brought his fingers up to his           eyes; but there brought two men clothes between them, then he scratched with his fingers water into his own eyes; afterwards             he ran out of the house and said, that there was no use staying within there, because it was all wet within.  And when he came             out of the house, then saw he there first his hands before him and all that, which was near him, that which he could see in the               night-darkness.]

This scene equates the spilled blood of Saint Olaf with the blood of Jesus, an obvious inclusion of Church influence.  This, as stated before, is a popular miracle, one of the reasons being that the delicate eye organ itself would not be better understood until the invention of the microscope, the other that most people are unable to dream of a world without sight.  In Glækonskviða, stanza 8, this miracle is referenced in much less detail, although it is discussing the same event.

Þar kømr her                            [There comes the army

Er heilagr er                             whose leader is

Konungr sjálfr                         the king himself

krypr at gangi                          crouching to walk

En beiðendr                             and searching

Blíndir søkia                            a blind {man} seeks

Þjoðar máls                              the suit of the people

En þaðan heilir.                       Who is thence called.]

Here there is no mention of wet floors, and clean saintly corpses under woodpiles but because there is a blindman included we are assumed to already know the story. 

Obviously, a hut that cures the blind is no place to keep a body hidden so Thorgils and Grim were forced to translate the body once more to a more secure location.  This proves to be difficult because of the saintly stigma of light that follows the body.  Once the farmers reached the river Thorgils used a large rowboat, with the real coffin under the footboards, to row to Niðaros.  I received the impression here that the two were moving more than just the body of the saint in a plain coffin and a fake coffin.  They may have concealed themselves with a larger procession in the hopes to keep the saint safe, although this is not specifically mentioned in any source material.  Once in Niðaros Thorgils had the archbishop summoned.  This was quite a move on the part of Thorgils, for Archbishop Sigurdr had been appointed by Knutr the Great, not Olaf II.  Olaf’s bishop had been previously banished in England.  Bishop Sigurdr carried the fake coffin in his ship  to the harbor of Niðaros where he then proceeded to dump the fake coffin in the water.  Thus it was publicly made known that the King was dead to his enemies, but still believed to be alive by his supporters.  This may be a referral to Olaf I Tryggvason who converted many Norwegians to Christianity, but was not made a saint because of his ignoble suicide in battle by jumping overboard.  

Once the fake coffin had been dumped Thorgils and Grim moved further up the Nið River with the real body to an abandoned farm at Saurlið, a point above Niðaros.  This was dusk of the third day following the birth of Saint Olaf, August 1, 1030.  They held the body in the abandoned farmhouse until the night of the fourth day, August 2.  “Síðan fluttu þeir Þorgils líkit upp með ánni ok grófu þar niðr á sandmel þeim, er þar verðr;  bjoggu þar um eptir, svá at ekki skyldi þar nyvirki á sjá” [Afterwards they flew to where Thorgils knew a place up the river and they made a pit down in the sandbank, where it was fitting] (Ibid. 410).  Their task accomplished, the two then returned to the farm at Stikklestað.

This is where all of the previous discussion of Norwegian soils comes into relevance, these were either spodosols, and thus acidic, or entisols with low organic content.  Neither soil would have been truly stable, especially with a river so close by.  This will be useful later.

St. Olaf apparently slept relatively quietly for the next twelve months or so.  During this time Bishop Sigurdr was recalled and Olaf’s former bishop, an Englishman named Grimkell, was reinstated as Archbishop in Niðaros.  Once this knowledge was widely known the farmer Thorgils made contact and disclosed the information of the healings, and the location of the body to the Archbishop.  Grimkell, without delay, went up the river with the King’s skald Einarr þambarskelfi and the usual pack of Norse thugs, to where the body should be and discovered that coffin had been moving, apparently of its own volition. This discovery was made, the body translated back to Niðaros, all marvelously executed by Grimkell and Einarr “[. . .]líki konungs” (413).  The mere fact that it was being written about centuries later proved to be evidence of their success.  Even the chapter of Heimskringla entitled Tekinn upp heilagr dómr Oláfs konungs– Taking up the holy kingdom of Olaf the King, shows proof of Einarr and Grimkell’s Barnum-like success.

Once the body was removed from the sand bank a holy spring was said to have welled up.  This spring was to further develop the developing Cult of Saint Olaf with healings.  Another example of this occurring in the Catholic Church would probably be the spring at Lourdes, France. 

The King’s coffin was carried to a church, but Snorre tells us that at the spot on the river bank where his body had been buried a lovely spring gushed forth, whose waters cured people of their sickness.  The spring is still there, only a stone throw’s from the Niðaros cathedral, the loveliest church in Scandinavia. (Sylte 36)

By the time that the Niðaros cathedral was planned the cult of Saint Olaf was firmly established, so it is not surprising that the Cathedral would be relatively close to a holy area associated with its patron saint.

The healing waters of the spring may have occurred simply because it was an unpolluted water source.  Another possibility for its mere presence, let alone curative properties, is that it is the end result of a local watershed drainage system for the local area.  However, more conclusive evidence would require a drainage map, unpublished in the United States at this time, to discern.

The heart of Trøndelag in saga times was Niðaros, the town built at the Nið River. It was founded by Olav Trygvason just before the year 1000 AD, and has many features in common with the most important towns he got to know on viking raids to the countries of the West.  The towns that made most impression on him must have been Dublin and London, both built on mighty rivers and both moulded by their rivers.  This was true of Niðaros- or Trondheim, as it is called today.  It would be no exaggeration, perhaps, to claim that the Nid is in many ways the most historical river in Norway. (Ibid. 35)

In Niðaros was a church dedicated to Saint Clement, which had first been built by Olaf Tryggvasson.  Upon Tryggvasson’s death at the Battle of Svolder in 1000 CE the original church was destroyed.  When Olaf the Stout assumed the throne one of his many good acts towards the Church was to rebuild, and rededicate this church to Saint Clement twenty years after its destruction (Beckett 268).  Grimkell had the remains “[. . .] disinterred, enclosed in a silver casket and deposited in Saint Clement’s Chapel” (Ibid.).  So his mortal remains were brought to the church and opened.

Following the birth of Saint Olaf  at the Battle of Stikklestaðr, one of his assailants,  Thore Hund, the recipient of the first of the true Saint’s miracles, had noted that even at death the king had been remarkably lively looking, with reddened cheeks.  He was likened to someone who was asleep.  If Olaf had been a pale-skinned man, as many of the northern latitudes are, this may have appeared to be true.  Without actual skin cells of the saint it is difficult to determine how much melanin was actually present, and thus determine a skin tone.

This knowledge, that Olaf had appeared to live after death, would have made his keepers all the more anxious to see it themselves.  When the coffin was open the first thing that was noticed was that there was no foul smell of decay.  This is something that a people without refrigerators no doubt would have been very conscious of.  The second was that Olaf’s hair and nails had appeared to continue growing beyond his death.  This is another of Olaf’s major miracles and is discussed in several sources.  In the fifth stanza of Glækonskviða it is mentioned most simply.

Þar sva at hrein                                    [There thus the lord

með heilo ligr                                      with good omen

lofsæll gramr                                       praise-fortunate king

liki sino                                                like himelf

ok þar kná                                           and there can

sem a kviacom manne                         same as living men

hár ok negl                                          the hair and nails

honom vaxa.                                        Of him grow.]

However, the historians bane and boon, Snorri Sturluson also discusses this subject in his Heimskringla.

Olaf konung, þá er hann fell, at síðan hafði vaxit hár and negl, því næst sem þá myndi, ef hann hefði lífs verit hér í heimi alla þá stund síðan er hann fell.  Þá gekk til at sjá líkama Olafs konungs Sveinn konungr ok allir hofðingjar þeir, er þar váru. [Olaf the King, whenhe fell, after he fell, afterwards had growing hair and nails, nearly as much as they would, if he had lived to lead his army back to that stand where he fell.  At this point King Sveinn came to see the body of King Olaf and all of his cheiftains, where they were.] (415)

The most likely cause of the body’s preservation was noted concurrent to the events by Olaf’s widowed queen, Alfifu.  She noted that men buried in sand would keep better.  In a cool climate this is quite true, provided there is decent drainage.  In fact cool sand was used as a well known way to store root vegetables prior to canning and refrigeration.  So essentially, by burying the tightly wrapped dead king in the sand bank, Thorgils and Grim placed him in a naturally occurring refrigerator.  As stated earlier, acidic soils rarely effect interred items for as short a duration as a year.  If the coffin were made of new sawn lumber then, by being buried relatively quickly, the boards would retain some of their new appearance, by lack of oxidation.  Bad smells due to working stomach acids would have been kept to a minimum due to the tightly wrapped bandages.  There would have been no room for expanding gases to move.

Grimkell trimmed the hair and nails, arranged the body in a more pleasing manner.  The trimmed personal effects he placed into a consecrated fire, where they did not burn.  Christian consecration of fire generally involves the addition of incense, at this time probably a fragrant resin burned in largish chunks.  Grimkell may have possibly strategically placed the hair and nails so as they wouldn’t burn.  The heavy incense would have covered the acrid smell of any of the hair burning and insulated the items from the direct heat of the coals. 

Once Saint Olaf is established at Saint Clements various minor miracles, such as healings of the lame and blind, candles spontaneously lighting, and the sounds of bells all around the body.  These are all common signs of medieval sanctity and can quite easily be attributed to the influence of clerics in the writing down of this information.  Some may have even been developed by the Church itself in order to continue control of its parishioners.  The body was dug up every year for over a century following the birth of Saint Olaf in order to view the signs of sanctity.  By the time the Eysteinn Erlendsson becomes the Great Archbishop of Niðaros this practice is ceased and the body cremated, probably because Olaf was no longer so springtime fresh.  The ashes were placed in reliquary on the High Altar in the Niðaros Cathedral.

Works Cited

Beckett, S. 1915.  The Fjords and Folk of Norway.  London: Methuen and Company.

Bridges, E.M. 1975.  World Soils, second edition. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Foth, H. and Schafer, J. 1980. Soil Geography and Land Use.  New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lindow, J. Scandinavian 123:Spr. ’04. lecture notes.

Oftedahl, Chr. 1980.  Geology of Norway. Trondheim: Universitetsforlaget.

Sylte, T. 1966.  The Rivers of Norway.  Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Sturluson, Snorri, arr. Jonsson, F. 1925. Heimskringla.


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